A market for user-defined functions
"Everything Starts Out Looking Like a Toy" (No.23)
This week’s toy: a mask that uses your own selfie. It won’t fool your Apple FaceID, but it does make people take a second look. Edition No. 23 of this newsletter is here - it’s December 5, 2020.
The Big Idea
Web 1.0 was displaying information. Web 2.0 was building applications in the browser. Web 3.0 will be microservices built by individual creators that can be used anywhere (like Lego bricks).
This tweet from @BenLCollins got me thinking about the change that’s happening in web-enabled documents. We are moving from a world of static, defined information to a world with always-changing, instant-on calculations. Think of the difference between a real estate ad with a house price and that same ad with an affordability calculator allowing you to understand the next step to buy that house. So things are changing. What are the implications for “regular work”?
User-Defined Functions => User-Defined Documents
Ben’s comment above refers to a specific kind of command you can run in Excel to let you run user-defined functions in a spreadsheet. This means if you have a specific set of calculations you do for your business you can apply shorthand to a formula, a lookup, or a script to call multiple times in the same sheet.
Combined with clever formatting, this turns your spreadsheet (or document) into an application. This is not a crazy idea. You’ve seen low code documents that do things like:
calculate affordability ratios for car payments
show you an automatic sensitivity table based on parameters you set
automatically normalize and chart data you paste into a spreadsheet
But putting this kind of control into a spreadsheet and into a lambda function that could be abstracted into a microservice for any document on the web raises the stakes somewhat.
A market for microwork
What if the next set of web creators were able to build tools that could be approved by major app stores (think Microsoft, Google, Apple) to work within documents like Office 365, Google Workspace, and the Apple ecosystem? Google tried to do this a few years back with the “add-on” program but perhaps the time is ripe to reinvent the App Store idea for micro templates that are secure, approved, and work within the framework of existing work suites. Think Open Source, but adapted to deploy within the existing ecosystems.
What would such a marketplace look like? It might look like the function Ben references above, where a simple idea is packaged up and sold for a very small amount (perhaps $1) and the goal is to sell a bundle of productivity updates or niche functions that Google or Microsoft will never address because it’s not a giant market.
Why would we want this to happen?
Work is static. The markers that people use to produce good work are not always observable. If we encourage people to document the small things they do that improve their output and share with others (teammates, friends, people on the internet) it might get easier to think about documents and work process as being a collaborative process.
When we move a process …
from static information to active, on-demand broadcast
from point-in-time calculation to continuous action or just-in-time calculation
from “dumb” to “smart” documents
The result might be building your own software. Of course, most people don’t want to handle the twiddly bits of authorization, storage, scaling, disaster recovery, UI platform, data retrieval, security, and many more that full-scale application building entails. But they might be quite happy to pay a fee (10%? 20%?) to use a service to provide the scaffolding to them. Scaffolding in this case might be a containerized function (AWS Lambda, anyone?) or an appstore version of that function.
Shopify and similar software have made it easy to build your own store that’s accessible anywhere in the world. Now we need to take the idea of application-enabled documents like Coda, Airtable, app.clay.run, Notion, and transform those documents from personal use into multi-use.
Multi-use might mean turning your user-defined function in your document into something anyone on Google Workspace could copy into their own document - and depending upon how often they use it, you could even get paid. Alternately, it might mean wrapping documentation around a series of actions to define business process, and ultimately the ability to designate that work as a request for someone to follow and complete that process.
What’s the takeaway? User-defined functions in web-enabled documents like Excel and Google Sheets point the way to a future where we write our custom software and also build process chains for others to complete. Web 3.0 applications are going to be much more interesting if they look like Lego bricks and can be used anywhere.
We’d like to know …
If you were going to use a service like this - where a major tech company vets and secures a user-defined function and then distributes it through an app store or a work suite, do you trust particular companies to do this well?
Click the tweet to tell us how you’re voting.
Links for Reading and Sharing
These are links that caught my eye.
1/ You’re gonna need a Zoom Background for longer - Packy McCormack thinks we’re not going back to regular work, and that the shift to remote work is permanent. I think he’s right, and that there is a major untapped market to outfit the “remote office.”
2/ The way people message is an early signal - @LennySan polled startup founders on the software they purchased when first starting a company, and it gets clearer why Salesforce wanted to buy Slack. Get in Early at a company (Slack = Salesforce, G-Suite = Google, Github = MSFT) and you have signals for which companies will buy big later.
3/ RIP the Mall - If you didn’t know department stores were in trouble, here’s some evidence. There’s going to be a lot of real estate available soon for some creative purposes, be they affordable housing, warehouse space, or something completely new.
On the Reading/Watching List
I was on vacation last week for Turkey Day, and so my watching list got really nerdy. First, I wanted to learn more about the data product my team sells, so I started Introduction to Redis Data Structures to learn some basic Redis. My unexpected takeaway here is that my prior experience in SQL and programming still applies ;)
Also, I started a Bootcamp on Data Science and Python, which is causing me to up my latent Python skills and learn a bit more about how data is structured for discovery and analysis. As I work through this bootcamp, I’m excited to find out how this work applies to existing data sets.
What to do next
Hit reply if you’ve got links to share, data stories, or want to say hello.
I’m grateful you read this far. Thank you. If you found this useful, consider sharing with a friend.
Want more essays? Read on Data Operations or other writings at gregmeyer.com.
The next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a “toy.” - Chris Dixon